Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
I’ve never had a place bore as deeply into my consciousness as Flannery O’Connor’s home, Andalusia. It is a five-hundred acre dairy farm (now a museum) just outside of Milledgeville, Georgia. When I showed up there this summer, it was after a seven-year absence. I had been invited to the farm to read from my novel, A Good Hard Look, which features Flannery O’Connor as a character.
My first visit was in 2004. Flannery had just appeared in the novel; I kept telling myself that she might not stick around, that the crazy idea of dropping a Southern literary icon into my work was just a reckless phase I was going through. On the off chance that Flannery wouldn’t leave, I traveled to Georgia to do research. I’m from New Jersey, and had spent very little time in the South; there was no way I could write about Flannery O’Connor without seeing where she lived. My instinct on that visit was to keep my mouth shut and my eyes open. I walked all over her farm, and the tired, yet lovely, town. I sought out no scholars or relatives; I didn’t introduce myself to anyone. I passed myself off, easily and truthfully, as just another fan making a pilgrimage to the great author’s home.
My visit lasted thirty-six hours, and then I spent the next seven years back in New York City writing and re-writing across Andalusia’s terrain. The white farmhouse, the enclosed porch, the rocking chairs, the arrogant peacocks, the water tower in the distance—this became my alternate universe, a reality often more real than the urban neighborhood I lived in. My dreams frequently took place at Andalusia. Flannery glared and stamped her metal crutches against the porch floorboards; the cries of peacocks rattled my windowpanes. My conversations with my husband covered the same ground; we ended up discussing Flannery as if she were someone we actually knew, and Andalusia as a place we were familiar with. When I finished the novel—thankfully and painfully and finally—the idea of seeing Andalusia again, in person, meant something completely different to me than it had the first time.
In 2004, I had been nervous and diffident; in 2011 I was nervous and reverent. The first time, Flannery had been a stranger; now she had somehow become one of the main figures in my life. She was the reason why A Good Hard Look had taken seven years to write—it had taken that long to do her justice. I’d struggled to make my fictional Flannery believable, to make sure she rang true. My great fear was that my novel would insult the writer, and the Southern town she’d lived in. Eventually, after much effort, I managed to convince myself that I hadn’t. But that conviction had occurred while alone with my book in my New York City apartment; the novel was now published, and I was in the South. My first event had taken place the night before in Atlanta. I had read to and answered questions from a hundred Flannery fans, and I’d been deeply relieved to find the crowd appreciative and enthusiastic. Tonight’s event was the real test, though. I was at Flannery’s home, in a somewhat removed part of the state; I would be meeting people who had known Flannery personally. Men and women who were not only Flannery’s fans, but her intimates. This was the group best able to judge whether my Flannery was, in fact, up to snuff.
I showed up at the farm with shaking hands. I wore a blue dress I had carefully selected for its 1960s style. I couldn’t stop smiling, and I feared that I would cry (though I am generally not a crier). I was also sweating. It was July, and the South was in the middle of a heat wave. It was one hundred and six degrees in Milledgeville, Georgia at sunset. The executive director of Andalusia, a nice man named Craig, met me on the lawn. I had a hard time listening to his words—the farmhouse was right behind him, and there were peacocks in a large pen to my left and my heart was beating hard in my chest—but he had two key pieces of news to impart. (1) The farmhouse, where I would be doing my reading, did NOT have air conditioning, and (2) Flannery’s ninety-two-year-old cousin, Louise Florencourt, who was the executrix of Flannery’s estate, would be in attendance. He wanted to make me aware of this, he explained, because Ms. Florencourt had been a Harvard-educated lawyer, and she was known to be confrontational, even a tad cantankerous, on the subject of Flannery. In fact, her love of debate had only been exacerbated by her encroaching senility. Anything, he indicated—with admirable delicacy and politeness—was possible from this woman.
“Oh,” I said, while wondering if it was possible for one’s ears to sweat. I could have sworn that my ears had begun to sweat.
“I’ll give you a few moments to gather yourself before the event begins,” Craig said, and then, again with great delicacy, he disappeared into the house.
I stood still, and tried to regulate the crazy pinball that was ricocheting around my chest. I didn’t feel discouraged—perhaps I should have—but I didn’t. Scared silly, yes, but not discouraged. I told myself that being at Andalusia was worth being yelled at by a tempestuous elderly woman. I stared at the white farmhouse, and tried to channel some of Flannery’s famous nerve. I knew the writer would have savored this kind of evening; she would have responded to any critic with a witty remark and a small, amused smile. I’m not Flannery O’Connor, though, and the house and grounds stared back at me blankly; no nerve was on offer.
My attention was caught by a sudden movement to my left. A rattling noise filled the air. The peacock stood in the center of his pen, shaking his long, thin tail. When the shaking concluded, he hurled his feathers upwards. This violent motion created, all at once, a sweeping display of moons and eyes and cerulean blues and bright greens. The fan was easily four feet across, and dazzling. The peacock pointed the display at me in silence, his head averted. Only when he thought I’d admired him long enough, did his sharp eyes deign to meet mine. In the hundred-degree heat, I was swept with chills. For one singular moment, I could feel Flannery’s presence. She stood beside me on the lawn, and together we stared down her wondrous, obnoxious birds.
Inside, the small dining room was filling with an audience that could exist nowhere else. In attendance were three distinct groups: relatives of Flannery, neighbors of Flannery and local scholars of Flannery. The median age was, if I had to hazard a guess, seventy. I was introduced by the head of the English Department from the Georgia State College in Milledgeville. The gentleman was a noted Flannery scholar and so I listened at first with interest, and then increasing confusion, to his talk. He was discussing my novel and Flannery’s role in the book, but it was difficult to put a finger on his actual thesis. He’s definitely not praising the novel… he’s hedging, maybe? Surely not condemning? Oh wait, that was a barb. I think it was a barb. I can’t be sure… it’s too hot in here to be sure. Oh wait, he’s done. What a weird note to end on…
From the podium, the ninety-two-year old cousin was easy to spot. She sat in a large armchair in the back corner of the room. A shiny wooden cane rested against her leg. She wore a white bun; she looked regal and imposing. She was—it became immediately clear—glaring at me. She glared the entire time I spoke: during my introduction, when I tried to explain how this girl from New Jersey came to write Flannery into a novel; during my reading, which I decided to cut short due to the extreme heat. (I could see beads of sweat on peoples’ foreheads, and did I mention the median age? I feared that someone might pass out; I could imagine an ambulance arriving, and the local headline blaring, “BOOK READING SO BORING THAT PEOPLE LOSE CONSCIOUSNESS”.) Nothing, however—not the temperature nor my nervous blathering nor the excerpt from my novel—had any impact on Louise Florencourt’s glare. Her gaze was so fixed she appeared not to blink.
Reading from my novel was such a heady experience I forgot about Louise for a few minutes. The scene I had chosen was set at Andalusia, and showed the beginning of Flannery’s strange friendship with New York transplant Melvin Whiteson. The characters spoke on the porch that was only a few feet away from where I stood, and peacocks roamed the lawn that I could see out the window. It felt strange and almost miraculous to read my work in the home of one of the main characters—how many writers have that opportunity? When I finished, I took a deep breath before asking the audience if there were any questions. I was careful not to look anywhere near the lady in the back corner.
A man in the front raised his hand, announced that he had lived in Milledgeville his entire life and that I had made an error in the second chapter by suggesting that the town had no movie theatre in 1962. He nodded solemnly, to give his statement emphasis. “We’ve always had a movie theatre here.” I, of course, apologized.
Another elderly woman, also with cane, told me that I should have read her book while I was researching my own. She was Flannery’s neighbor, and she had written an entire chapter about the author. I said I was sorry I hadn’t come across it, and that I’d love to read it. The woman promptly handed me a bright yellow book and said, “My address is on the inside back cover—you can send a check for sixteen dollars to that address. That’s how much it costs.” I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
Craig, in the back of the room, shook his head ruefully. He told me later that he’d worried this lady was going to pull something like this; she was known to grab the microphone at public events in Milledgeville in order to push her self-published book on people.
Next, the history professor from the local college told me that he had figured out who, in Milledgeville, every character in the book was based on. I found this information—and the details he provided—both amusing and gratifying. The only characters I had based on anyone real were Flannery and her mother, so I chose to take this as some kind of compliment.
My final interlocutor was the youngest person in the room, a black-haired, clean-cut man of perhaps thirty. I’d been wondering what he was doing there; in a room full of characters, he didn’t fit. It turned out he had been sent down from Atlanta by his very wealthy, very Catholic boss to see if my book was worth optioning for a movie. His employer was slowly buying up Flannery’s short stories in order to put them on the screen; he saw this project as a kind of Catholic philanthropy, rather than a money-making venture. The young man looked me over, with what appeared to me to be skepticism, while we talked.
At some point, without my noticing, Louise Florencourt abandoned her glare and her corner seat. She left the farm without saying a word to me. Craig posited that it was because she hadn’t read my novel, so didn’t feel she had the necessary facts for an effective verbal attack. I was enormously relieved; if she had attacked me, the argument would have been one-sided. I would have let her have her say without interruption. Louise had, after all, grown up with Flannery; they were family. She felt an understandable ownership of the great writer, and the disapproval she had pointed in my direction made sense. I’d fictionally usurped someone she knew, and loved. If I’d written a bad biography of Flannery, Louise Florencourt could have—and probably would have—sued me. But a novel is not biography; it is mere make-believe, a piece of whimsy, an imaginative fugue, and therefore untouchable. I had pulled Flannery out through a trap door Louise didn’t have access too, and might even doubt existed. A novel must represent the ultimate frustration and insult to someone like Ms. Florencourt, who had made her living fighting facts with facts. I had not only taken her cousin away, I had taken her tools as well.
It was my turn to feel untouchable as I left that house for the second, and perhaps the last, time. The peacock was tucked in the shadows now, his tail matted down, his eyes looking away. The night was steamy, the crickets and birds clattered in the trees over my head. I had written onto this landscape the clatter of typewriter keys and the screams of fowl, the gunning of car engines and the spill of blood. I had written about a woman who lived here, and lived fiercely, in the face of certain death. I had lived here with her, with my pages and words, for many years. The truths I had tried to capture in my book, and the truths Flannery had nailed in hers, swirled around me in the noisy darkness.
The event was over and I was alone, but my hands continued to shake at my sides. I was smiling, too; I may have even laughed out loud. I found myself thinking that the night had been a great success. It had been weird and crazy and stressful, yes, but this was Flannery O’Connor’s house, and as such it was only proper that the weird and crazy should rise to the surface. The worst thing that could have happened was for the evening to be ordinary. “Ordinary” was an insult to Flannery O’Connor. “Ordinary” had no life in it, no electrical charge, and therefore had no place here.
Image courtesy the author
The cockroaches in Tel Aviv are nuclear-apocalypse huge. How adorable, how terribly petite the roaches of New York seem to me now. In a million years, the spacemen who descend to this place will find only styrofoam cups and the hard-shelled family living under my sink. I am a coward. Afraid to get close, I kill them with a chemical spray. They fall from the wall or garbage bin, thud. They heave madly in tortured circles, stopped by convulsions that come at smaller and smaller increments, cramming themselves into the ground as if to disappear. Their stomachs bulge and seep out. After they die — or as they are dying — their feelers twitch, twitch, twitch.
This was the month for gas masks in Israel. Fearing that Assad might use his sarin-bearing rockets on Israel next, those who did not yet have gas masks picked one up at the post office. Every outlet reported it, and every lede was the same: “Long lines and high tensions in Israel today as civilians obtain gas masks from local distribution centers…” I don’t have a gas mask. I’m not a citizen, and therefore not eligible for a free gas mask from the post office. I can buy one for — 400 sheckels — a bit over $100 from a war profiteer. That’s a month’s worth of groceries, nearly, but not quite a prohibitive cost. Still, I don’t buy one. “Assad’s not that crazy, don’t give it another thought,” says my Hebrew teacher, rolling her eyes. Then almost as an afterthought, “But pick one up anyway.”
An American friend of mine, perhaps trying to console me regarding my lack of mask, tells me that the Israeli gas mask kits lack the antidote for the specific nerve gas — sarin — present in Syrian weapons. He also reminds me that during World War I, soldiers used alternate methods to survive gas attacks. He is right: it is a proud element of Canadian history that one of our own boys figured out you could survive a mustard gas attack if you covered your mouth with a cloth soaked in your own urine. I’m saved! He laughs. We are on a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on Thursday (Israel’s Friday) and the bus is filled with soldiers coming home for the weekend. Everyone is sleeping. Soldiers are always sleeping. And after the conversation, my friend and I sit in silence, and I wonder how small the gas masks come. Do they make them for toddlers? For newborns?
I have someone here. He is in the Israeli Army and so he is away a lot. Please get your mask, he begs me. If things get hot — this is how he talks — if things get hot you will not be able to reach me. He tells me if worse comes to worst I can go to his widowed grandfather, who now has an extra mask. What are you doing here? I want to ask him. You should be a camp counselor in rural Vermont. He is worried about his girlfriend jury-rigging a gas mask with her own pee; he is worried about the extra chemicals weapons training courses this new situation might entail. I am picturing him teaching children to canoe. I live in a country without civilians. Everyone I know has the same green khaki duffle bag. It’s usually sitting on top of her closet: out of the way but easy to reach. It is kind of natty looking, actually. Madewell would sell it for $278 as a Weekender Duffle in Hunter Green. But it’s the bag they take with them on reserve duty. I actually do not know what is inside because I am too embarrassed to ask. I would guess that it is a uniform, boots, underwear, socks, toothbrush, a few granola bars, maybe some expired pepper spray for the ladies. And under his bed, everyone has a cardboard box with a gasmask and antidotes.
“You do have a gas mask, don’t you?” the mother of a friend, Naama, asks me timidly. I say I do not and she shifts uncomfortably. “But you must get one. They are free! Just go to the post office.” I say I will. It is Rosh Hashanah — literally head of the year — and soon she and I will walk to temple together. There are no cars on the street, in observance of the holiday. Women in long skirts, trailed by children, carry shopping bags with their prayer books. There must be some religious prohibition against carrying a purse. During this month of holy days — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simhat Torah — you see what a Jewish State looks like. All over the world, the Jewish holidays occupy a comfortable peripheral position. Before Yom Kippur, you tell your boss you will soon be fasting, so he should be extra nice to you. If you work at a sleek magazine, as I did, it’s not so different from brutal juice cleanses endeavored by the white-toothed editorial assistants. I never found this (the lack of publicly observed Jewish holidays) alienating (the juice cleanses certainly). I experienced Judaism as a vaguely nostalgic activity set apart from daily life. That is, I experienced it as apolitical. Not so in Israel.
On High Holy Days such as Rosh Hashanah, even in godless Tel Aviv, there is no public transportation, nobody works, no shops are open. You walk to temple or, if that’s not your thing, go for a bike ride on quiet streets. In temple, Naama leans over to me and whispers, “Soon we will go la-ritzpah.” (Soon we will go to the floor.) And we do, first to our knees then bringing our foreheads to the ground, a motion familiar from seeing Islamic men at prayer. It is a gesture of total obeisance during which I felt, counter-intuitively, free. Afterwards, I asked her how often one goes la-ritzpah. Twice a year, she says: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sometimes, in the Hebrew Bible, God reinforces commands by reminding the Israelites that they were Pharaoh’s slaves. Freed from Egypt, they now belong to God. Surrender, selection, and complete belonging — all present in this act of genuflection.
The threat of a chemical weapons attack from Syria passes. But living here requires some level of preparedness, and I know I should go buy a mask. Instead I sulk righteously. In Israel, it is perfectly acceptable to ask a stranger if she is a Jew, and I get asked every day. “My father is,” I say, as if conceding a point. This results in a stranger, with great excitement, explaining to me that I am in fact not a Jew at all because the religion is matrilineal. I say the same thing every time: “That is very interesting.”
The State of Israel defines Jewishness as having one or more Jewish grandparent. My gentile mother is one hell of a lawyer, and has reviewed the terms of the Law of Return carefully with me. This law grants any Jew the right to live and work in Israel — immigrating or obtaining various visas. However, a substantial chunk of public life in Israel is overseen by an Orthodox rabbinate. This creates more than a little tension regarding who is Jewish and what being a Jew means. So, when I desperately need a work visa to stay in the country, I find myself in the Ministry of the Interior, biting my nails while a hard-faced Russian-Israeli named Anya or some such reviews my visa materials. She is reading my “proof of Judaism” — a letter from the rabbi heading the congregation where my father was Bar Mitzvahed. She is frowning. My shoulders begin to droop when her colleague, a traditionally-dressed Orthodox Jewish woman in a headcovering, leans in and read my letter over Anya’s shoulder. I breathe in sharp. “Give her the visa, Anya.” Exhale. Anya looks incredulous and starts to protest. Headcovering clucks in slight impatience, Anya prints out my visa on peach colored paper and sticks it into my passport.
I got my visa. I’m in. However, the waiting room is filled with people who will not get visas that day. There are tens of thousands of refugees from the African world in Israel. The majority have no official status in this country, which as far as I have heard, does not even bother to process their asylum applications. There is no mechanism for their absorption, and no room in Israel’s national narrative for their voices. They escape Eritrea or Sudan, survive refugee camps in Egypt, sneak through fences into Israel, and fold sheets for under-the-table pay at Tel Aviv seafront hotels. Some of them have escaped torture camps in Sinai, as was reported earlier this year on NPR’s This American Life. They do not have gas masks. Many undocumented refugees live in the area around the Central Bus Station, meaning, many live in the park near the station. Thin black bodies sprawled on the grass and on benches. This is where you come when you fall through the cracks. I have debated writing this part, because to me it is obvious that it is embarrassing to spell out. It is this: There is absolutely room for these refugees in the story of Israel. All throughout the Bible, the experience of slavery in Egypt is used to engender compassion and humane treatment of the most vulnerable peoples in the population. As well as being reminded that they were slaves in Egypt, the Israelites are reminded that they were “strangers” there. So what I don’t understand, what I refuse to understand, is why this story — one of the oldest and most beautiful in the world — cannot inspire the most compassion, the most open arms, the most justice. Shouldn’t Israel be the most desirable place to be a stranger, not one of the hardest? I say this to Israeli friends, who agree that there is something very wrong going on, but who also remind me that Israel sits on the gateway to Africa. “We cannot just open our gates,” one tells me, “and remain a Jewish State.” There are theories that posit all national narratives are a dangerous fantasy, whose instability can only be remedied by cruelty and violence. I do not want it to be true.
As for me, I will borrow $100 from my mom, and I will get a gas mask. It will sit in a brown cardboard box under my bed just like the one under Naama’s bed, and Anya’s bed. Brown cardboard boxes under the beds of everyone I know. Outside the central bus station, men with deeply scarred backs will lie on park benches and wonder where their sisters are. And as I am falling asleep, someone I love will text me, Did you get the mask?
Photo courtesy of the author.